Printed in the Bucks County Herald 1/13/09
The tendency in remembering a life lost is to reduce it to a legacy. All the important accomplishments and traumas are winnowed from the chaff and are threaded into a narrative. In this way a life can be remembered in a concise way for history as in a dictionary definition. Remembering an artist who has passed away is uniquely challenging for me because it changes how their artwork is experienced.
I’ve never felt the particular sting of having one of my heros die, but I am now mourning the death of Vic Chesnutt. Again, the impulse to reflect on his death is to relate his biography to those who might not be familiar with him and thereby sum up his importance concisely. Here is how that version sounds: Vic Chesnutt died by his own hand, overdosing on sleeping pills at the age of 45 at his home in Athens Georgia on Christmas day. Chesnutt was bound to a wheelchair after a near-fatal car wreck while drunk driving at the age of 18. Vic suffered from severe depression and had attempted suicide on several previous occasions. Chesnutt died at the height of his career having just released two acclaimed albums, “At the Cut” and “Skidder on Take-off”. The victim of a broken health-care system, he owed $70,000 in medical bills at the time of his death. While never reaching mainstream notoriety, his music was revered by a cult following including many renown performers. You can see how it becomes a story that conveys tragedy and not art.
Not only does that summation feel redundant in the wake of other epitaphs pouring out for Vic, but it seems to smother what was special about him. Death is unresolved for the living and we have to orient ourselves with facts. When did it occur? How did it happen? Why did it happen? How does it effect me? How does it effect society, and so forth.
The truth is that Vic often scribed his own epitaph and with feeling rather than fact—haunting himself with death partly in the tradition of the Southern Gothics. But death was not his singular narrative. He sung of the metaphysical experience that united life and death.
I was introduced to Vic Chesnutt in art school by a fellow painter and was shocked immediately by earnest lyrics about offering a lover help stretching a canvas. I’d never heard painting sung about with such candor and poetics. He had a gift for elevating mundane imagery to grandeur like his granny mixing up pimento cheese at the sink, conveying the essence of nurture. Vic’s viewpoint was always uncluttered by cliché or trodden ground and his voice enunciated the sound of honesty like an explorer reporting back from some unknown frontier.
His perspective was indeed unique, being wheelchair-bound. Where his body was limited, Vic pushed his mind. His observation was expansive and incisive as he illustrated the slowness of his body against a world and a mind that were much faster. Sometimes it was hard to tell if he was describing the infirmity of being paraplegic or the infirmity of being an artist. It was the sort of voice that egged on a painter who relishes inefficiency. Vic sought out his pain and confronted it head on in ways often frightening. In his song, “Flirted With You All My Life,” he describes the closeness to death as an actual gritty romance.
His mouth loved the words he sung or at least it had complete respect for the shape, sound and language. This meant they usually got caught on his tongue and elongated in a most evocative way. He also dusted off some coveted and often endemically southern phrases, having no qualms about sitting them at the table right alongside very erudite terms.
I was lucky enough to see Vic play a show in Philadelphia at the Unitarian church just two months before he killed himself. It was the opening game of the World Series, so when only a small crowd showed up, the concert was moved to the humble basement stage. The result was pleasantly intimate, however, and Vic was charming and grateful with the audience.
It was hard not to observe the beautiful transition of his physically diminutive body and wheelchair lifted by band mates onto stage (as he spread his arms comically like a bird taking flight) then become absolutely enormous when his commanding voice raged. A friend in the crowd who had never known Vic’s music until that evening was nearly in tears at his willingness to scream full-throated. Indeed when the song called for him to shout, his whole body raised to produce the sound, resembling to me, a chicken laying an egg. The way in which art can transform an individual was so vivid on that occasion and I’m indebted to Vic each time I listen to his albums and hear that power anew.